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Indonesian Tolerance Bill Accused of Worsening Religious Tensions

Soldiers stand guard outside a church after it was attacked by a mob in Temanggung on February 8, 2011. Hundreds of Muslim radicals set two churches ablaze and attacked a court in Indonesia's central Java, calling for harsh punishment for a Christian on t

Indonesia's legislature is considering a tolerance bill aimed at reducing tensions between the Muslim majority and minority religions about such issues as building houses of worship and converting members to a different faith.

But human rights groups worry the bill would actually have the opposite affect given the rise in attacks against religious minorities in recent years.

The violence has been instigated for the most part by Islamic militants opposed to the building of Christian churches in Muslim neighborhoods, the converting of Muslims to Christianity or other religions, and the Ahmadiyah sect being permitted to practice its faith.

The tolerance bill is aimed at countering this sentiment by setting limits on controversial religious activities and groups. Activists say that the measure would limit the rights of religious minorities, provoking further conflict.

Elaine Pearson with Human Rights Watch says the fact that the tolerance bill came from the Religious Affairs Ministry that has called for a ban on the Ahmadiyah is, in itself, a cause for concern. The bill, she says, promotes the segregation of religions by making is more difficult for minority religions to build houses of worship without majority consent.

“Our concern is that, you know, this kind of proposal might simply entrench further discrimination against religious minorities by basically pulling together the various decrees on houses of worship against the Ahmadiyah and other provisions that have been used in a way to really marginalize some of the groups," Pearson says.

Although the 200,000 Ahmadiyah followers in Indonesia consider themselves Muslims, they are not accepted by mainstream Islam because they do not believe the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet.

Ruby Kholifah, with the interfaith dialogue organization the Asian Muslim Action Network, is concerned that an article in the bill prohibiting sectarian teaching is actually code for banning the Ahmadiyah. She says the government should focus on protecting religious groups and not judging the tenets of any faith.

“The protection should reflect strongly in the tolerance bill instead of discussing whether Ahmadiyah [is] correct or not," Kholifah says. "It is not our area. Let's just give this to God to judge whether Ahmadiyah is correct or not.”

Musdah Mulia, a lecturer at the Islamic State University in Jakarta and chairperson of the Indonesia Conference on Religion and Peace, says the bill goes against the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and the country's founding Pancasila principles of unity and democracy.

“This bill is not compatible, many articles in this bill [are] not compatible with the principles of democracy, pluralism, and human rights. And for me it is not conducive with the principles of Pancasila itself,” said Mulia.

Mulia adds, rather than limiting religious activities, the government should ensure that all religions receive equal treatment.